“This is it,” he said, with a triumphal tone in his baritone during a recent interview. “This is where it’s going. There will be a garage-band quality to news, particularly video news, in the years to come, and I think it’ll be limitless. Maybe there will be a NewsFlix in the future, with 37 options — with Olbermann’s commentaries and a three-minute Al Roker forecast.
“If this looks like a downward spiral,” he continued, “I would point out that I don’t need the money. I’m doing this for charity — for dogs groups and veterans groups. I’m doing this for the rides downtown.”
Would prefer a 3rd Bush term
He was speaking in a spacious studio on the 24th floor of 1 World Trade Center, looking like a bank executive in his Brooks Brothers ensemble, with silver hair and black-framed glasses. The scripts to the three essays he was going to record for his series, “The Closer” — each a fiery burst of outrage about Trump’s unfitness for the presidency — lay on a table before him.
“Were it the choice,” he said near the end of one of them, “I would sooner and happily vote for a third term of George W. Bush than five minutes of President Donald Trump.”
Don't call it a comeback
At a certain point, a return to political commentary in any medium looked improbable for Olbermann.
He hosted “Countdown” on MSNBC through the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. But he left unhappily in 2011. He hooked up with Current TV, Al Gore’s short-lived cable venture. That relationship ended in vitriol and lawsuits, but a legal settlement reportedly left Olbermann quite wealthy.
He returned to sports and ESPN in 2013 with a studio show, “Olbermann,” on ESPN2 that ultimately could not overcome various factors, including shifting time slots and modest viewership.
But the political climate that fed Trump’s rise riveted and dismayed Olbermann. His animus toward Trump since the beginning of his presidential run led Olbermann to sell his condominium apartment at the Trump Palace in Manhattan this summer. (Trump responded by releasing a statement that said in part, “Keith is a failed broadcaster and the people in the building couldn’t stand him.”)
His interest piqued, Olbermann thought of a comeback, but talks that focused on returning to MSNBC and CNN (or its sibling network, HLN) ultimately went nowhere.
'I missed Keith's rage'
During the summer, a friend of Olbermann who writes for GQ heard that the magazine wanted to talk to him about creating online commentaries for its website, whose most popular feature explores extremely expensive luxury goods with the rapper 2 Chainz. Olbermann and the magazine came to a quick agreement in August.
“We wanted to add to our political and election coverage, and that dovetailed with Keith’s desire to get back into the game,” said Jim Nelson, editor-in-chief of GQ. “We felt that no one was meeting Trump at the temperature level that was needed. And I missed Keith’s rage. We miss Jon Stewart. And we only get weekly doses of Samantha Bee and John Oliver. That’s not enough.”
A decade ago, GQ lauded Olbermann in an article for producing “the most electric, intelligent and eviscerating news commentary on television,” and posed him in a raincoat as Howard Beale, the unhinged, mad-as-hell newsman from “Network.”
Millions of clicks
So far, Nelson is pleased that the magazine is swimming in Olbermann’s indignation. His more than 20 videos have attracted about 25 million views on GQ.com, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and sites like Yahoo and Huffington Post, according to internal measurements.
Though measuring online views is an imprecise practice — and the definition of what actually constitutes a view varies from platform to platform — Olbermann sees those numbers as vindication of his new embrace of the online format.
The first episode, called “176 Shocking Things Donald Trump Has Done This Election,” has been viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube. “That’s from a dead stop,” he said. “No promotion. Basically me tweeting every few hours and word-of-mouth.”
A few bad reviews
But not all responses have been positive. A recent article in Slate called the commentaries “a context-less, free-floating slice of sound and anguish” and “the most embarrassing thing humanity has ever produced.” It said Olbermann had “the superior tone of some disappointed national dad.”
Jamie Horowitz, who produced Olbermann’s show at ESPN2 and is now president of Fox Sports national networks, looks at the commentaries on GQ.com as less of a surprising career shift than a simple change in where content is available.
“My belief is that content has to be platform-agnostic,” he said. “You can create quite compelling content on a variety of different platforms. That’s where we’re headed.”
Olbermann at work
Olbermann goes into GQ’s offices at least twice a week to tape “The Closer.” A small group of GQ staff members work on the series. A fashion editor, Jon Tietz, fusses over his tie and shirt collar. Geoffrey Gagnon, an articles editor, goes over the scripts. Instead of an elaborate anchor desk, Olbermann sits at a plain white table. A blue blanket is beneath his feet to muffle sound. A blue and red backdrop hangs behind him.
His commentary style is feverish, erudite and emotional — unchanged since his “Special Comment” segments on MSNBC.
In a comment posted after Trump said at Wednesday’s debate that he might not accept the results of next month’s election, Olbermann pointedly addressed several Republican leaders, including Paul Ryan, the House speaker, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.
“Compel him to withdraw. Now,” he said. “Litigate against him. Find enough doctors and have him declared psychiatrically incompetent. At minimum, cut off his funding completely and denounce him in the strongest possible terms. Because this nightmare, this fascist, this Trump, is now your responsibility.”
The same Olbermann. Just in a very different venue.